Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Perfect Latin American Country

After a month of traveling in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Panama, I have decided to build the perfect Latin American country. I have written a couple of posts about my trip so far, with lots more coming!

Rough Introduction to La Paz
La Paz Grows on You
Jungle Horror Story
Bogota Days 
The 9 Types of Backpackers you Meet in South America

So check those out for now if you haven't already, after this little wrap-up post.

The perfect Latin American country would have...

the connection to, appreciation of, and social/political integration into the mainstream of indigenous culture and people of Bolivia*

the food of Peru
the natural diversity of Peru (Andean highlands, wide deserts, coastline, and jungle)

the warm people of Colombia
the resilient spirit and joie de vivre of Colombia 

the ease of access and simplicity of Panama

*I know that was a really hard sentence to read...bear with me

Should I explain a bit more...? Here are the best and worst of each country in my personal, very limited, experience:
(Below each section are the best pictures from my trip from each country - sorry my iPhone photography skills are so lacking) 


Cold and cold. The record high in La Paz ever was 25.4 C/77.7 F...the mountains around La Paz are beautiful but the altitude really kicked my butt.

Bolivia was the least developed country on my trip, and I saw the most poverty here. The people were generally cold and unfriendly, unhelpful, and (perhaps understandably) quite unhappy to interact with or even see tourists.

Indigenous cultures are strong and visible, which is the best thing about the country other than perhaps the nature - Lake Titicaca, the Andes, and the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) and territory south towards Chile (which I didn't see in person but pics and stories assure me it's incredible). 
There is some food that is really unique, but almost everything you can get in Bolivia, is mirrored (and improved) in Peruvian Andean/Quechua cuisine.  

A month ago, I would have told you to skip Bolivia entirely and go to Ecuador instead, but really, as I moved north, the negatives of Bolivia have faded a bit from my memory, and I retain how awesome it was to experience a very isolated and unique culture, and it's hard to see that in other countries apart from maybe Amazonian peoples. So, maybe give Bolivia a few days, but steel yourself for the hardships - no English, horrible infrastructure, little organizational support for tourists, barely there wifi, and awful coffee. If you embrace the reality, though, I think you can have a really memorable trip.

(much more on Bolivia, which was definitely the most interesting and different country of my trip, in the forthcoming post Goodbye Bolivia - this will be a link when the post is released!

A popular style of architecture in La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz, Bolivia

Bus terminal, La Paz, Bolivia

Tiwanaku/Tiahuanaco/Tiahuanacu, Bolivia
at least 200 BCE - 200 CE)

Sunset, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Train Cemetary, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

View of Lake Titicaca from Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Crossing Lake Titicaca, near Copacabana, Bolivia


Before coming I was already biased in Peru's favor, since I visited with two of the loves of my life (@elyse_atpeace, @rebeccajvogel) in 2015 to hike the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu. This time, I wanted to spend more time in Lima and to see the selva (jungle)- mission accomplished.

Peruvian food is indisputably the best in South America, mixing flavors and styles from highland, coastal, and selva regions.
Lima has terrible weather in the winter - grey skies, drizzly rain, too cold for the beach - but I still loved it (blog coming on Lima!). From ritzy Miraflores to hipster cool Barranco to working class La Victoria (lol don't go there, I was just lost), Lima has a ton to offer, is very walkable, and incredibly diverse. 

Peru's history is fascinating too, as Cuzco was the "bellybutton of the world" as the capital of the Inca Empire, and Lima was the capital of the Spanish conquistadores. Maybe it's just me after reading Turn Right at Machu Picchu with the besties before our Peru trip, but I am obsessed with the Inca Empire and its history - on the Inca Trail, our guides knew I loved the history, so before letting me into our camp for lunch or the night, they would quiz me with an Inca history/Quechua culture trivia question. South America is loaded with the remains of pre-Spanish civilizations, but the Inca is one that we know a lot about, and the story of the last Incas has a very real and personal feel to it.
Peruvian people are not the hug you on the street type, and they don't shower you in sweet nicknames, but you can open them rather quickly with a smile and a greeting, and no one was really rude to me. 

The selva of the Amazon basin (I was only at Iquitos, but there is also access at Puerto Maldonado where most organized tour groups go) is incredible. I had quite a few Indiana Jones/Lara Croft Tomb Raider moments, although I was not a fan of the food (I hate the plasticky taste of the bijao leaf that a lot of food is wrapped in, and many of the rare Amazon fruits have a vomit and/or old socks flavor to them). I loved riding on moto taxis (as Iquitos is only reachable by air or sea, cars are fairly rare), even as their unfiltered exhaust stung my eyes and shriveled my lungs, and loud road noises is my number two most hated thing...It's really a must-visit, even if you don't see any sloths...

Peru is home to so many must-see-before-you-die places, from the Amazon rain forest, to Machu Picchu, to the oldest town in the Americas, Caral, to the Nazca lines. It's affordable, has tourist infrastructure, but doesn't feel like a fakey tourist trap. Go to Peru as soon as possible - and don't skip Lima! 

Puno, Peru
High alert during a protest in Lima, Peru
Arriving to Iquitos, Peru from the airport by motokar

Raspadilla cart in Iquitos - machine is 40-50 years old
Young woman prepare palm hearts at Belen Market in Iquitos

Iquitos, Peru

A child helps us load our boat in an Amazon village near Iquitos

The best things about Colombia are the landscape and the culture/people. While not as diverse as Peru, the country is filled with lush green hills growing coffee and bananas - it really is sort of the quintessential Caribbean South American destination, especially in places like Cartagena and Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast. 

I loved being called sweet names, such as: princesa, reina, mi amor, amorcito, corazon, nena, muñeca, mami (this one just drove me wild). However, as much as people you interact with will be sweet to you, street harassment is intensely real and the worst I faced on my trip (also maybe compounded by the fact that I got my hair and nails done in Bogota and was looking the most clean and female like that I did on my trip...but check out the narco beauty section of this post). I will admit that I couldn't help but smile when some guy called me Jennifer Lopez, though...
Colombianos use a lot of slang and unusual expressions in general, and it's great fun trying to decipher them! It also makes it pretty easy to spot a Colombian in other countries.

Colombia has the best music and (non-indigenous) cultural scene, from reggaeton and bachata to the more respectable vallenato and salsa, Colombianos love to shake their tail feathers (omg can't believe I just used that expression...), and it's great to explore the different musical styles throughout the country.

Leticia is a small jungle town at the "tres fronteras" (three borders) of Colombia, Brazil, and Peru - it's basically a smaller Iquitos, but you can sneak into (the least interesting town in) Brazil for a bit from here, so maybe worth a stop just for that! 

Bogota is fabulous, despite the weather, and Medellin (which I didn't visit) has the perfect weather year round! Bogota is extremely walkable (really, like, too walkable - you'll just be strolling for hours through the urban jungle if you don't stop yourself), which you need because public transportation is pretty bad. Medellin has excellent public transportation, though! Bogota has an excellent nightlife scene, and in a city that size (maybe 10 million!) you will never run out of places to explore. 

Parque Tayrona near Santa Marta is a veritable playground for adults, a natural theme park, and early on a weekday morning in shoulder season it feels quite secret. Cartagena is a magical fairytale and I hate that I was only there for one day. It's hopelessly sultry and romantic (there is a chance I only thought this because everything ever written on Cartagena describes it as 'sensual'), the history of conflict between the Spanish empire and pirates after its stolen treasure is palpable, and the people watching is fantastic as it a vacation destination for people from all over Colombia and Latin America.

I could definitely have spent the whole trip in Colombia, there is so much to see and do and the people are generally so laid back that you don't feel guilty just spending the day lounging on a beach or writing in a coffeeshop. The coffee here isn't what you might expect from one of the world's largest coffee producers (the traditionally have exported the choicest beans), but especially in cities, Colombianos are beginning to develop a taste for great coffee and as demand rises so does quality. 

The biggest drawback to Colombia is probably the safety issue...while there isn't much reason to concern about guerillas anymore (and hasn't been for many years in the cities), FARC's disbanding is still being negotiated, and other small groups such as ELN still exist. Just double check the security situation before venturing somewhere remote, and in cities like Bogota armed robberies aren't as rare as I would have been led to believe through my own experience. I felt really safe overall, but in the 4 days I was in Bogota, a kid from my hostel was mugged at knife point and a hostel worker was threatened by a guy with a metal pipe. Homelessness is a big problem in Bogota, as well.
Arrival in Leticia, Colombia (international border)
Arrival in Leticia, Colombia (international border)
Chapinero, Bogota, Colombia

Bogota, Colombia

La Candelaria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Monserrate
Foggy the cat, Santa Marta, Colombia

Gaira, Santa Marta, Colombia

Parque Tayrona, Colombia

Parque Tayrona, Colombia

After riding a horse for 1.5 hours out of Parque Tayrona

Heading back to Santa Marta from Parque Tayrona
Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

So, my experience here is quite skewed because a) I stayed only in the capital, and b) I spent a lot of time with my family and not so much sight seeing. So I can only speak to Panama City,'s not a great city for relaxing or exploring, and certainly not for backpacking/budget travel. There are some amazing things to see and do here - the Panama Canal being number one must see. Apart from the Canal, Cerro Ancon look out point (which comes with a pretty nice short hike), the historic and charming Casco Viejo, and the skyscrapers of Punta Paitilla, there isn't much. It is extremely car-focused, and walking is a challenge outside of Casco Viejo. If you lived here, I am sure you would love it. Although half the year you're inundated with frequent rain storms, the country is beautiful and the city's location surrounded by water and forest is excellent. There are many upscale bars and restaurants, with nearly any type of food you're looking for. There are also several nice cafes (though not as many as I would hope), lots of cheap beauty salons (a blow out starts at $5!). My biggest takeaway from Panama City is that it's really similar to an American beach town - it reminds me a lot of Virginia Beach if you added a cosmopolitan downtown. They use the US dollar, many people speak English (but not everyone, so brush up on your Spanish!), there are colossal malls with all the big US chains. Many parts of the city look like a mid sized US city, with infrastructure that hasn't been updated since the 70s or 80s, but there is also a major housing boom as both domestic migration to the city and immigration from countries like Venezuela (a huge topic of debate here) are on the rise. Street pavement is broken and cracked, traffic jams (tranque) clog the city during weekday rush hours, and frequent strikes with unhappy workers blocking main thoroughfares bring the city to its knees. Local food has its high points in a hearty plate of arroz con pollo, empanadas, chicheme (a creamy corn drink) fresh fruits, and raspado (shaved ice), but Panamanian food is generally fried and greasy. 

The best of Panama is the people! Friendly and helpful, and diverse - I saw a Guna woman wearing a traditional mola blouse shopping at the mall, and the San Francisco neighborhood where I was staying is full of expats and upper class locals. Panama has a lot of cool music, and local slang is worth getting to know. It's really fascinating how much the Spanish can change even just between Colombia and Panama, two countries that (as every Colombian would remind me) used to be one! 

Casco Viejo (the old town) is really cute - it reminds me of a mini Cartagena - but it doesn't have as many sidewalk cafes or casual bars as I would expect. Even the nightlife (everyone claims this is the heart of it) is sort of lackluster from street view. There are a lot of shuttered buildings, maybe being renovated, and lots of scaffolding. It seems like a space in transition. 

You can have a really high quality of life in Panama City, but as a tourist, I suggest getting out of the city - it really doesn't have more than 2-3 days of traveler entertainment in it unless you're a high roller going to casinos every night and the Trump Tower spa every afternoon.
Monument to history in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Hiking in Cerro Ancon, Panama City, Panama

SLOTH/MONO PEREZOSO, Cerro Ancon, Panama City, Panama
View of outside Panama City from the Templo Bahai'i, Panama City, Panama

So, that's it! 

More posts to come, but on my last day in Latin America for who knows how long (tickets from Tbilisi to Panama City start at $1,300!!), I wanted to share a wrap up overview of my thoughts.

From being so sick and miserable and cold that I was in tears in a sketchy Bolivian hostel, to watching a breathtaking sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, to taking a boat 11 hours down the Amazon River, to dancing to my favorite reggaeton songs (I can never find in a Charlottesville bar) in Lima and Bogota, to eating three breakfasts because I keep finding better and better food, to spending the whole day on a locals-only beach outside Santa Marta or a secret hidden lagoon in Tayrona, to seeing TWO sloths on one hike and reconnecting with my extended family in Panama - this trip is something I will never forget. 

1 comment:

  1. Sloths! We have to go back! Thank you for this excellent read!